Kabul to Kandahar

Stops along the way from Delhi to Istabul in 1971

The ride up through the Khyber Pass to Jalalabad was, as I said, frightening, but at the same time awesome, in the old meaning of the word — it filled me with awe. What kept hitting me along the way every time I dared to look out the window of that bus was the sheer magnitude of the mass of stony earth we were climbing on this zig-zag path along its outer edge. And to think that so many invaders of the Indus Valley had come through the pass, heading down of course, and had conquered the people who had been living by that mighty river.

But I was glad to be through with that and finally on my way to Kabul. I arrived late in the evening and found a hostel of sorts, where I took a single room rather than a group room with 6 beds.

In those days I avoided drugs of any kind. I had drug years behind me. And I would have some drug years again in the future. But in 1971 I wasn’t interested in any of those things. I was learning how to see and hear and be without the blur that drugs induced. Certainly I wasn’t against drugs, I have never been one who wants to ban them. In fact, I believe that all drugs should be decriminalized, made legal, and be available in pharmacies for anyone who wants to take them. If you are not a responsible person, then too bad, you die of an overdose or you go to a hospital to endure a cure. The only purpose in banning a substance is to jack up its price on the black market. Rather get it pure and at the lowest possible price, generic and unbranded if possible. It’s your body, destroy it any way you like. As long as drugs are not “pushed” onto the buyers, then where is the problem? Ideally, 50% of the profits from their sale could be sent into the health system so that we can all benefit from the maladies of the few, because there is no way that suddenly millions of people will start injecting heroin just because it’s available for five bucks a shot at the pharmacy down the road.

Anyway, Kabul was just a stop on the way to Kandahar. There were buses leaving every day, so one wouldn’t be so hard to find, but I wanted to rest up a bit before starting on the next leg of my journey. In those days Kabul was a peaceful place. The streets were wide and the people walked most everywhere. There was a king as head of state, Mohammed Zahir Shah, who was a modernizer. Women worked as doctors and lawyers and were able to move about freely without wearing special clothing or covering their heads. At least that’s how it was in Kabul when I was there. I saw women in skirts and high heels and men in business suits, and although from time to time I also saw a woman in a burka, it was more of an exception than a rule.

The country had always been clannish and tribal and I suppose that hasn’t changed. But the new element that crept in after the Russian invasion was the religious fanaticism. It was used as a tool to excite and motivate resistance against the “godless” communists, but it has since become a cancer in the body politic of the nation. Even in Pakistan, where religion had been used to split Pakistan away from India, it was not really openly visible. I had the impression that religion in these countries was like religion in Italy, a part of their lives and culture, but nothing to scream and shout about.

I only had that one rucksack with me, washed-out green like an army rucksack but nowhere near as large. A couple of pairs of underwear, some t-shirts, an extra pair of jeans, two pairs of socks. If I needed something more I would be able to buy it along the way. Clothes were cheap everywhere. The cotton fabrics came from India, most probably smuggled in so that no tariffs applied, and I had already learned in Africa that you should never wear anything synthetic in those climates, it would stick to your skin because it created a kind of sauna around you.

Yes, I was a cigarette smoker in those days, and cigarettes were cheap in that whole region, so I bought a carton of unfiltered cigarettes, which I determined not to break into because I wanted to deliver them unbroken to my half-brother David when I eventually got to London. The Afghans used a type of tobacco called naswar, a kind of snuff which they took a pinch of and placed under their lower lips or snorted. That was definitely not for me. Once upon a time I had tried chewing tobacco and it burned my mouth and made me vomit. But I stuffed the carton of cigs into my rucksack and only bought single packs to smoke along the way. Actually, during the trip I hardly smoked at all. I didn’t have that much time on my hands, even though the bus journeys were extremely long.

In fact, the journey from Kabul to Kandahar turned out to be much longer than I expected.

On my second day in Kabul I went down to what you might call a bus station. It certainly didn’t look anything like where Greyhound buses left from. It was just a place where there were lots of buses and lots of drivers and lots of people all more or less haphazardly gathered in one rather spread out location. I went from group to group and asked about a bus to Kandahar. They told me the next bus would leave early the next day. But I kept asking different people until I got the answer I wanted, which was that a bus would be leaving after lunch, which meant around two in the afternoon. I went to the bus and the driver and found out where to get a ticket for that bus. Since it was already after ten in the morning, I went to a nearby restaurant and sat down, drank some tea, smoked a cigarette, read my book (I always had a book with me) and then around noon had lunch (rice and some lamb curry), a postprandial cigarette, more tea and read another chapter of my book (probably something by Somerset Maugham, because I felt that after reading Ulysses by James Joyce while I was in Delhi – it took me six months to do that – that I was allowed some literary entertainment from an author who had passed through exotic lands).

I went back to the bus I was supposed to take to Kandahar and a small crowd of potential passengers had already gathered there. All of us were obviously anxious to get going. It was already past two in the afternoon and the journey to Kandahar is about 480 kilometers (about 300 miles). The road is on a flat surface all the way, with no mountain passes, but the buses were not capable of traveling faster than 80 km/hr (about 50 mph), and even if they had been capable, you wouldn’t want them to go faster because of the poor state of the buses and the unknown competency of the drivers.

So we were looking forward to at least a six hour journey, perhaps longer, depending on the condition of the road and if we stopped often along the way. The road turned out to be in pretty good shape, even though I heard that after the war with the Russians the road was practically unusable for most of its length.

At four, we boarded the bus. At just before five we left the station. We managed to get to the edge of Kabul around the time it got dark and that was when the bus driver pulled over to the side of the road and said that we would be spending the night there because it was much to dangerous to drive through the night. Nobody complained. I had a double seat to myself so I used my rucksack as a pillow and stretched out over the seat and fell asleep. It was cheaper than another night in lodgings.

The next morning just after sunrise we were on our way. After about 50k we stopped at a roadside shack where tea and flat Afghani bread was on offer. It was a wonderful breakfast. And behind the shack, a little way up the sandy hill, there was a place where we westerners went to pee while some of the religious passengers went to pray facing Mecca. In fact the bus stopped two more times that day for prayers, which gave the others among us a chance to stretch and pee. Smoking was allowed in the bus.

The only other remarkable moment of the journey was when, sometime after we had covered a little more than half of the distance, and we were in the middle of nowhere, just sandy plains on the left side of the bus and some sandy hills on the right, the bus stopped. It wasn’t a prayer stop and it wasn’t a toilet stop. It was just a stop, with the motor still running. Nothing but dusty plains and sandy hills. We waited about 5 minutes. Then, like an apparition, the turbaned head of a man appeared over the ridge of the hill. He grew taller as he emerged and I could see that he was toting a cloth bag over his shoulder and an ancient-looking musket-like rifle in his hand. He came determinedly down the sandy hill and the driver opened the door for him. He gave the driver a slip of paper which might have been money or might have been a ticket, I don’t know, and he came down the aisle of the bus and took a seat on the right about halfway up.

The driver closed the door and we were off again to Kandahar.

Our new fellow passenger was a man of a certain age, wiry, a sun-browned face, a thin grey beard and an isosceles triangle of a nose, large and strong with wide nostrils, as if breathing through it in the sandy environment was essential in order to filter out the dust particles in the air. However it seemed that those nostrils were also essential for the intake of some naswar, because after placing his rifle in the overhead baggage rack and his cloth bag on the seat next to him, he took out a round tin, put a few grains of its contents on the skin of his hand behind his thumb and inhaled through his nose. This did not cause him to sneeze. But it did cause him to sit up straighter. Then he pinched more of the naswar  between his thumb and forefinger and placed it between his lower lip and his teeth, closed the tin, put it away inside some hidden pocket of the many folds in his roomy khet partug. (If you want to know exactly what that is, look it up in the encyclopaedia.) After about 10 minutes, he spat on the floor, a big green glob that landed directly in the middle of the aisle.

Three hours later we were in Kandahar. When I got off the bus, it was 40 degrees (C) and dry as a bone.

NEXT INSTALLMENT: To Herat and then to Mashad

Interlude:
On the journey, mostly by bus, I slept a great deal. After reading a few pages in the heat and bouncy noise of the bus there was nothing else to do. The view out the window was always the same: dusty brown landscape stretching to the horizon, with no vegetation, but with an infinitely deep periwinkle blue sky. Sleep means dreams, and dreams turn into poems:

disjunction

disjunction
tottering defenseless
emerald plain
she is a sorceress
drunk on submission
ejecting her soul
into evensong
red blood alarm
flight from anchorage
clouds on the horizon
death watch
lights of destruction
she is a bird
oh
any old bird will do
then down
ambushed
on the ground
thief thief thief
ergo
dramatis personae
egg-shaped eggs
and three cousins from
sweet houses of voice
singing hallelujah
hallucinating godhead
but she
(our witch our)
quiet rather aphonic
united with sky
hooked fingers blue-green
frowns oppose moons
night crashes headlong
and her soul (soul?)
is not a bird
just a wandering thought
in the hermetic void
of finite infinity
ta ra

****

 

 

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The Road To Kabul

From the Pakistani side of the border, I took a taxi to Lahore. It’s about a half hour drive and it was hot and I was tired and after talking with the driver for a few minutes, I fell asleep. I was sitting in the front seat, with my olive green backpack between my legs. I chose the front seat so as not to play the Pasha, but it made no difference to the driver. After our short conversation, and after I fell asleep, he must have rummaged in the pocket of my backpack because later, after he had dropped me off at the bus station, I discovered that a cassette tape with many of the songs I had written in Delhi was gone. I remember having pushed it into one of the outer pockets of the backpack at the last minute, thinking that maybe I would be able to listen to it again in Europe. But it was gone, and all the songs were gone too. Me with my guitar, singing into the cassette recorder. I was sad and angry when I found out, but there was nothing to be done about it. And nothing else was missing, so I let it go. Of what use could it possibly be to him anyway? Maybe he could sell the cassette to somebody for a few rupees, and the new owner might even listen to it once before recording over the strange music he found on it. But its real value was next to nothing. I can’t even remember which songs were on it.

Two years later, in Gary, Indiana, I would have a quarter-inch tape with new songs I had recorded in a studio in Philadelphia taken from me along with my guitar and my backpack. In that case, I had been hitchhiking to Chicago from Cove Gap, West Virginia, and the last guy I got a ride with through Indiana left me at a level crossing after sunset where a train was supposed to stop on its way to Chicago. A train eventually did stop there but the conductor came down the steps and blocked my way onto the train and I ended up trying to hitchhike my way out of there, got picked up by four guys who packed me into the middle of the backseat of the car and then proceeded to rob me at gunpoint, leaving me to stand in front of the headlights of their car with my back to a garage door.

Before that, while we were riding toward the place where they would unload me, one of them kept saying: “Let’s kill him. Let’s kill him.” But the leader of the four — who was so small he could hardly see over the steering wheel of the car — looked into the back seat and said: “You won’t tell anybody, will you?” Automatically, I said: “No, I won’t.” And so they let me out after taking my pack and my guitar and I stood there in the glare of the headlights and out of the side of my eye I saw a wire fence about a foot high and scraggly bushes and somebody yelled: “Run!” and I dove to my left over the fence, rolled through and under the bushes and was suddenly running through a passageway between some apartment houses. I stumbled blindly along, panic shooting through my body along with the adrenaline of still being alive. It was a hot summer night and I saw that one door was open behind a screen door, a television on in the background. I knocked on the aluminum frame and said: “Please, can you call the police, I’ve just been robbed.” The man looked at me and shut the door in my face.

Later, after I finally convinced a couple of girls to call the police and the police came and picked me up, I remember how they stopped in an alley and asked me a series of questions about where I was from and whether I would come back to testify against the robbers if they were caught. I mentioned my mother of course and the Italian consulate and that I would come back at any time to testify and that must have convinced them that I was just an idiot who didn’t know anything about Gary, Indiana and not some drug dealer who had made a bad deal. So at the precinct where they went in to make their report, one of the cops gave me a dollar and I called my friend in Highland Park, a suburb of Chicago, and he drove down to Gary with his brother and a German shepherd and picked me up. About seven months later a police report arrived at my mother’s house in Seattle and it said that there had been no solution to the crime committed against me and that the case had therefore been indefinitely suspended.

I believe the tape with my songs on it was just as useless to the guys who robbed me as the cassette tape was to the taxi driver in Pakistan. The guitar might have fetched a few bucks, but it certainly wasn’t precious, and the rest of my stuff, my clothes — mostly shirts, a pair of clean jeans and some underwear — might have served a purpose for somebody for a while, but all-in-all it hadn’t amounted to much of a catch for them. Not even the fifty-something dollars I handed over in cash could have made their night very interesting. And how many years of that life outside of jail and still alive did they have left after I was gone?

Lahore has not remained in my memory at all. I got on a bus for Peshawar and promptly fell asleep again. Pakistan was not beautiful, not a tourist paradise and the drive through run-down city neighborhoods and scruffy villages certainly did nothing to keep my interest. So I slept.

In Peshawar, I found a cheap hotel near the bus station, ate some flat bread dipped in vegetable curry and went to my room. It had a wooden chair and a bed without a mattress, a rope-spring bed. These types of beds were very common in India and Pakistan and, as I  found out later, in Afghanistan as well. The hemp rope spring is tied starting at the left most hole at the head of the bed, then back and forth the length of the bed. At the right-most hole at the head of the bed, the end is carried under the rail and inside the post to the first hole in the side rail. The rope is woven over and under the rope going lengthwise. The rope spring is tightened with a straining wrench, repeatedly in the same order in which the rope was woven until the end is reached. At this point, the rope is wrapped around the wrench to secure it and tighten it and then tied with a secure slip knot as close to the outside of the rail as possible. Rope springs stretch with time so they need periodic tightening. But this rope spring was good and tight and I had a roughly woven grey wool blanket with me which I spread over the roped bed. I used my backpack as a pillow. After I propped the back of the wooden chair against the door handle, I fell asleep without any problem.

The next morning, very early, I found a bus that would take me as far as the border crossing to Afghanistan, a place called Torkham.

Jamrud Fort, on the outskirts of Peshawar, was the official entrance to the Khyber Pass. Set high above the road, at a perfect military vantage point, with thick stone walls, the fort watched over the gateway entrance to one of the world’s oldest known mountain passes along an important trade route between Central Asia and South Asia as well as being a strategic military location and an integral part of the ancient Silk Road. Darius, the Persian king, had been here, and Alexander the Great, and Genghis Khan! And now here I was on a rickety bus, ready to make my way up one of the most famous roads in the world!

Of course I didn’t have a camera, because in those days I was determined to remember everything I saw and thus eliminate the need for a camera, which only rendered real one instant of a journey, anyway, and not the whole experience. Sometimes I think that maybe a couple of photos would have been interesting in terms of documentation, but then I also think that a camera would have been a liability because of its value as booty for thieves. Better to carry nothing of perceptible value. No gold or silver chains, no rings, no sunglasses, no shiny objects that might attract unwanted attention. And that included not dressing like a hippie. I wore blue jeans and a khaki military-style shirt of thin cotton, and custom-made boots of sturdy brown leather that had square toes but were otherwise like cowboy boots, with leather uppers that went halfway up my calves. Those boots were made for me by a cobbler in New Delhi and they served me excellently for years. They finally fell apart after being immersed in water and then dried in the California sun, years later after I returned to Los Angeles.

Going up the Khyber Pass in a rickety bus is not a wonderful experience. The view is awesome of course but death grins with every curve and at the approach of every bus and truck. After 20 curves and about 50 trucks you finally experience fright fatigue and fall without thinking much about it into ultimate Hinduism and say to yourself: “Life will be so much better next time!”

The bus stopped in Torkham and we all had to get off and find another bus that would take us the rest of the way, through Jalalabad to Kabul. The most frightening part of the bus ride was over. The road from here on out would be fairly straight and without steep drop-offs at the side of the road. But this little village was also the place where you could buy counterfeit weapons of every kind, from ancient British Enfield rifles to modern Kalashnikov knock-offs. I walked around the open marketplace where everybody, I mean everybody, had some type of weapon slung over their shoulder. I saw an astonishing variety of guns hanging from wires strung across under the cloth roofs of the stalls, the guns hanging like dried rabbits or geese or lambs stripped of skin in an outdoor meat market. It was weird to be among so many armed men and so many guns, and yet not for a moment did I feel threatened by anyone. The bearded men in their shalwar — loose pajama-like trousers — and kameez — a long shirt or tunic — most all of them with some type of  headgear, a kufi, Peshawari cap, turban, sindhi cap or pakul, their traditional headgear, walked and talked with each other calmly, a few of them curiously looking at me, but not in an aggressive way. After all, I was the stranger here, the anomaly, with no beard, no weapon, no head-covering.

As I strolled past the stalls, the men inside smiled and waved at me to come in and have a look at their wares. I nodded and smiled back, the palm of my hand going to my heart, and kept moving. Then I came to a series of small wooden shacks, with open doorways, each with a smiling hat-less man standing in the doorway and waving at me to come on in. There were no weapons hanging, in fact nothing really to be seen, so I approached one of the huts and the smiling man walked in and I followed him. There on an unpolished wood table about a meter back from the doorway were five tallish stacks of rectangular slabs of hashish, each slab about 30 centimeters wide and 50 centimeters long and probably 2 centimeters thick. The slabs on the stacks were slightly different shades of black, with the slab on top of the darkest stack on the far right of the table sporting a large five-pointed gold star. Right next to that stack was a balance scale, a brass T with two round brass plates attached to the ends of the T with fine chains and a series of weights in a wooden holder next to it.

“Here. You try,” said the smiling man and proceeded to pick a slab up from the middle and light its corner from the sole burning candle in the room. Sweet hash smoke curled into my nostrils and I bobbed my head and smiled and quickly left the shack. Outside, the heat seemed slightly less intense and my perception of my surroundings became sharper. But I knew why, and I knew that it was imperative that I return to where the buses were gathered for the trip to Kabul. Sure, even that short sniff of hash smoke had its effect, but I knew there was no way I was going to survive this journey without being as connected to basic reality as possible.

The buses were ready to roll, and after handing over a handful of rupees, I got on the bus for Kabul.

*********
Reality Now is a song I wrote in 2013, which includes the scene about the robbery in Gary, Indiana.

Reality Now